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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/2116469
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Dark · #2116469
new title, and more pages added to the short story I'm writing.
His was a small house. But what it may have lacked in size it did not lack in comfort. He had seen to that, building the one room cabin himself as a young man, fresh out of the military. He remembered it as three long months of passionate toil, in the sun and the rain, and even after it was built he had spent much time fixing various odds and ends that he had missed. But that work was long done now, and he was an old man. The house had stood the test of time with him. It kept him cool in the heat of summer afternoons, and during blustery, cold winter nights like this, the house was a watertight refuge from the cold and the rain.
He picked up the dented coffee pot from the gas stove and turned down the flame. As he poured himself a fresh cup he watched the storm outside ravage the Vineyard coastline through the thick kitchen windows. He mused in the way that old men do when they have a cup of something worth drinking in their hands. He had always liked winter he decided. Even as a young man in the infantry, he liked winter, though he had learned there to hate the cold. He was a quiet, thoughtful man, and winter was a quiet, thoughtful season. Winter has a way of creating distance between people and things, of sharpening the silence between sounds. The snow falls, and with it comes a sort of welcome silence. The world turns quite, as if all of nature were turning inwards to reflect on itself.
Crossing the room he placed his cup next to one of two great armchairs in front of his fireplace. After placing another log into the crackling flames, he made his way back to it, easing himself into place and staring out the window overlooking the harbor, a good distance away down the small hill he lived on. It was a picturesque, though bleak, scene. Every boat was at its berth in the tiny harbor, lashed tight to any fixed object their captains could find. Violent gray waves smashed against the rocky jetty, spraying foam in all directions, and the whole of the small fishing village was shut tight against the driving sleet, chimneys fuming and shutters closed. He had lived alone with this view for some time now. He had had a wife once, but their marriage was short, lasting only long enough to produce a son, whom he had seen for three months in the summer every year. His son was a man now, and those three months had shortened steadily as time drew on, to a few short days usually around Christmas. But the old man didn't mind this. He knew his son was well, and that was all a father could ask for.
But tonight he was lonely. He was not often lonely, but tonight was different, for it was his last night. He knew this because tonight his visitor would be coming. It would be the 75th time that this visitor had come to see him in the last 75 years. In all his years living in this house the old man had never accepted any guests into his house save for two; his son, and his guest tonight. He chuckled at the thought; as if he could stop this visitor from coming in if he had wanted to.
The old man checked the clock hanging over his writing desk. It was nearly 10:00 in the evening. He would be here soon. He poured a second cup of coffee, and placed it next to the second chair. He drew a blackened pipe from his coat pocket, and opened a drawer in his desk to retrieve a tin of tobacco and some matches. Easing back in his chair he lit his pipe, and counted the minutes till 10:00
10:00 came, and with the 10th chime from the old timepiece there came three gentle taps against the door. Tap tap tap. “Its always three knocks” the man mumbled as he rose from his chair and turned from his fireplace to answer the door, and let Death in.
Light spilled out of the door as it swung open, sparkling off each piece of sleet as it whistled through the air. “Evening Viduus” the old man said, bracing against the cold. “Ten o'clock already?”
“It is indeed, my old companion.”The words came clear and sharp, like a whisper carried by the wind. “May I come in?”. “'Course a course, come in out of the cold. Got coffee waiting just how you like it.”
Viduus crossed through into the house. He was a full head taller than the old man, and in place of a face he had the skull of a ram, with twisted horns and long black sockets that stared endlessly into space. He seemed to glide over the floor to his chair. A thin, pale arm extended from under his cloak, and raised the coffee till it was hidden behind the ram skull. The old man watched as he closed the door. It was strange, but he could intuit the expression on the rams face, despite his fixed features. He seemed content with the coffee, and sat down, gazing into the fireplace.
Sitting back down in the chair across from Viduus, the old man repacked his pipe, and took a long pull. He waited. For a long while neither of them said anything. The only sound in the room was the crackling of the fireplace, each pop and fizzle sending a shower of sparks rising into the air, throwing shadows wildly across the room. Finally, Viduus turned his gaze from the fireplace onto the old man. “So, 75 years then. How have you spent your last one?” Shaking off a bit of drowsiness the old man straightened up. “Oh its been a year well spent. Tied up some odds and ends, got out on old Wilford's boat one last time. Even saw my son sometime back. Boy gave me a grandson finally. Pity he had to come so late but I suppose that's just the way of such things.”
Viduus nodded in a knowing sort of way. “My condolences.”
“Oh not your fault. You've been more than fair these last years.”
“Our arrangement has favored you well then?”
At that the old man had to chuckle. “I should say so yes”
Viduus's rams head almost seemed to smile. “You have come a long way from Chosin, haven't you Marcus?”
As he spoke, Viduus raised a single withered hand, and the room around them faded into pitch black. They and their chairs were fixed into an inky, dark void. Marcus had seen this before, on many of Viduus's visits. Slowly, the scene around them changed. Solid ground coalesced beneath them, rocky, spotted with moss and snow. Trees sprung from crags in the ground, and all around them mountains rose into a steel gray sky, and the swirling darkness receded. Marcus knew exactly where they were. It was the Chosin Reservoir. It was December of 1950. It was the day that he and Viduus met for the first, and what should have been last, time. In all their trips through time and space over the years, Viduus had never brought Marcus back to this place.
A long procession of battle weary, frozen troops marched in front of them, like souls to the grave. Boots worn through by countless the countless miles sloshed through the mud. Eyes that had seen too much were sunken into faces stretched too thin to possibly be human. Torn rags that had once been uniforms hung from their shivering frames. Beside them trucks laden with the dead and wounded trundled along with their morbid cargo, the limbs of the dead frozen in the agony of their final moments, the moans of the dying floating back on the exhaust. And Marcus knew it was only going to get worse from here. He knew because he had been here all those years ago. In fact, he was staring at his younger self now, gaunt, cold, terrified, and soon to be dead.
And then it began, it began exactly as Marcus remembered it. The soldiers looked up all in unison, hearing the scream of the rounds before their impact. The call ran up the line. “Mortars! Grab cover!”. The rounds fell, and the world shattered as the black earth erupted all around. Marcus stared in horror, watching the helpless, agonizing death of his friends for the second time in his life; far more vivid than any of his wildest dreams or worst nightmares could conjure up. White hot shrapnel whistled past Marcus and Viduus beside him, but they were unharmed; they were merely onlookers. As the deadly rain continued to fall the screams of the freshly wounded rose above the din. For Marcus, as for most men, there is no sound more terrible, no noise that can be so permanently embedded in ones memory as the agony of the dying. It was too much to bear a second time.
And then it stopped. The shelling ended as suddenly as it had begun. The able bodied rose from cover. Calls of “Corpsman!” could be heard all around, and the men who could set to their gruesome task automatically, empty, as they had too many times before. Marcus remembered. Walking through the carnage, he saw himself, buried under a clod of black earth and a shredded truck chassis. He was dying, and no one saw. No one knew. He was locked in that most bitter of struggles known to any living creature, and he was losing. “Why are you showing me this?
Marcus grew sick looking at the scene unfolding before him. He wheeled on Viduus. “Why are you showing me this? All these years traveling with you, always some lesson to learn and never once have you taken me back to this godforsaken place. Why now?” Viduus looked down at Marcus, unperturbed. “ It gives me no pleasure returning to this place Marcus. Truly man's wars are the most detestable part of my work.”
“Then why show me this?”
“That you may see and remember why I stayed my hand these many years ago”
The scene froze, as it had on that cold December day 75 years ago. Marines froze in place, snow hung in the air, raging fires grew still. All except the wounded young Marcus, being watched over by his older self and Viduus. Marcus turned back and watched as his memory unfolded before him. This was the moment. He was coming. In front of the dying Marcus materialized a tall thin figure, clad in black robes, with the skull of a ram. It was Viduus as he had appeared to Marcus, 75 years earlier. Marcus glanced back at his solemn companion. He was untouched by the passage of the years since.
The two looked on silently, as their past selves played out the scene long since passed.
The young man stopped struggling. Suddenly he grew still, he grew calm. He met Viduus's gaze evenly and without remorse. “So this will be it for me here then huh?”
Viduus gazed back, cold and unreadable. “Yes”
“Suppose this is the part where I'm supposed to start blubbering on about more time?”
Viduus almost seemed to smirk “That is the customary thing to do yes.”
“Figures” Marcus huffed, propping himself up on one arm. “Dying's the one thing every man does but has no fuckin clue how to do.”
Viduus paused, staring at Marcus's downcast face with his empty eyes. Finally he spoke “What is it that makes you believe you die better than any other?”
“Oh I didn't say I was doing any better. Christ I'm talking to a fuckin sheep skull right now, I got no clue what I'm doing.”
Viduus chuckled, his robes billowing.“You face me with a nonchalance rare in most other men.”
“That so? Well I guess I've been expecting you, given the circumstances.” Marcus looked up “Pretty shit way to go.”
“Yes. War is mankind's great folly”
“I figured you'd be in favor of it”
“Why?”
“Better for business.”
At that, Viduus fell silent once again. When he spoke, his voice was hard and cold. “Death is not a business, and I am not a business man. Mankind squanders itself in greed and destruction. I merely reap the results of mortals poor judgment.” He sat on a burned out piece of chassis, next to Marcus.
“ I take no joy in my work. There is no glee for me in ending countless existences. I am nothing more than the ending of mortal toil. I am the final consequence of humanity's recklessness. War is that most distasteful of mankind's inventions.”
They sat for a long while, staring at the frozen world around them, the agony and suffering put on pause that this encounter might play out. Viduus sat, his bark hunched forward, looking out endlessly into the sky. It was Marcus who broke the silence.
“Well I'd imagine you have lots more mortals to get to.”
Viduus looked down at him. “I hold time in stasis. I am in no hurry.”
“Why? You normally keep people alive this long?”
“No.” Viduus replied. “But you have piqued my interest.”
“How so?”
Tell me, why is it that you do not fear me as other men do?”
Marcus's brow furrowed in thought. Finally he said “You're not something to be feared. You said so yourself. You're a man doing a job.” “I happened to be a man doing a job as well, and my time came. There's no use in crying or begging, it's not the way a man should meet his death.”
“How should a man meet me then?”
Marcus looked up. “As a friend”
Again they fell into a long silence, both staring ahead. Marcus was lost in thoughts of the afterlife when Viduus spoke. “I will give you a choice.”
Viduus stood and looked down to Marcus. “You have met me today as a friend Marcus. This is something I have not had for many generations.”
“If you so choose, I will allow you to live today. I can promise you great pain and suffering if you do, your wounds are most grievous, but you will survive.”
Marcus's brow furrowed once more. This seemed too easy. “What are the conditions?”
“Every year we will meet on this date. I will assess your life, and the worth you have added to the world through your continued existence. We will meet as friends. This is all I require of you.”
“How long will you give me?”
“How long do you believe you will take to live a full life? Of meaning and purpose?”
Marcus couldn't believe what he was hearing. How could he judge such a thing? Different men could live very differently in the same span of time. How long would it take him to not just exist, but to live? He was only 20, How long did he even want to be alive for? But his was clearly an offer not to be refused, and being deaths personal friend would make for an exciting life. He called to Viduus.
“Well, my grandad always said it was bad luck to live past a hundred. How's 75 years sound?”
“75 years it will be then. Ensure you do not waste them Marcus.”
Viduus turned away from him as the world slowly began to move around them again. “Wait! What the hell am I supposed to call you next time I see you?”
The Rams head turned back to look at him, saying “My name is Viduus, and I will see you again Marcus.” and then he blinked out of existence.
And with the disappearance of the Viduus of the past, the Viduus of the present raised his hand, and they were in the void once again, alone except for each other and their armchairs.
© Copyright 2017 Everett Mayhew (everettmayhew at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/2116469